The Great White Culture War

Race fans watch the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Apache Warrior 400 race in Dover, Del., October 1, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Discussion of American cultural conflicts has to take place alongside pivotal conversations about race, not instead of them.

Yesterday I spent some time listening to a Vox podcast with Ezra Klein, Jane Coaston, and Dylan Matthews. The subject was the “Great Twitter Wars of 2018,” and I was particularly interested because they spent some time discussing a piece I wrote last week on Sarah Jeong’s anti-white tweets and the existence of anti-white racism more broadly.

The conversation was an interesting, thoughtful window into progressive ideas about race, culture, and politics. I highly recommend giving it a listen. There was one segment, however, that stood out to me more than the others: the discussion of what “whiteness” truly is. Yes, there was the longstanding presumption that “white” is the “norm” or “default” American race, but there was also a deeper question of the nature of white culture. What is it, exactly?

At that point, Klein brought up the old blog Stuff White People Like. I remember it well. As a son of the rural South who spent some time living in prosperous quarters of progressive America — Manhattan, Cambridge, Ma., Philadelphia’s Center City — I thought it was funny. It satirized a highly specific kind of white American life, one largely alien to my existence. The “white people” in that blog were nothing like the white people I grew up with.

And that brings me to the subject that I think has to be discussed right alongside race when discussing American life and American politics: the great white culture war.

Conservative white Americans eagerly move to majority-minority Texas. Those same people would be far more reluctant to live in majority-minority California, because of its profoundly different treatment of religious freedoms, gun rights, and of course tax rates.

With each passing year, I grow more convinced that Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy represent two of the best vehicles for understanding our times. Though they’re not specifically political, they help us understand the profound differences between different white American communities — differences that are often exacerbated in our polarized age.

Consider, for example, the extraordinary faith gap between white Republicans and white Democrats. According to recent Pew data, fully 72 percent of white Republicans believe in the God of the Bible. Only 32 percent of white Democrats share that same faith. To take another important cultural issue, gun-ownership rates vary wildly between white Americans, with whites in blue America far less likely to have a firearm at home.

Now, what does this have to do with race and condemnations of “whiteness”? Earlier this week, my colleague Reihan Salam wrote a fascinating piece in The Atlantic making the point that white-bashing is actually a way in which the progressive white elite distinguishes itself from “lower” white rivals, a form of “intra-white status jockeying.” Here’s Reihan:

It is almost as though we’re living through a strange sort of ethnogenesis, in which those who see themselves as (for lack of a better term) upper-whites are doing everything they can to disaffiliate themselves from those they’ve deemed lower-whites. Note that to be “upper” or “lower” isn’t just about class status, though of course that’s always hovering in the background. Rather, it is about the supposed nobility that flows from racial self-flagellation.

Given the awesome power these “upper-whites” exercise in elite American institutions, there are incentives for other people to bash whites as well:

In some instances, white-bashing can actually serve as a means of ascent, especially for Asian Americans. Embracing the culture of upper-white self-flagellation can spur avowedly enlightened whites to eagerly cheer on their Asian American comrades who show (abstract, faceless, numberless) lower-white people what for. And, simultaneously, it allows Asian Americans who use the discourse to position themselves as ethnic outsiders, including those who are comfortably enmeshed in elite circles.

Reihan is onto something very important. And it helps explain why the GOP’s revulsion at the message that white people’s day is done isn’t grounded exclusively (or even mostly) in racial resentment and fear. Because we know full-well that the white people who so gleefully make that claim fully expect to emerge victorious, their status and power intact, in a post-white-majority America.

To understand different outcomes of the white culture war, consider California and Texas. Both states are firmly majority-minority. Yet the leaders of both states are still disproportionately white and male; they’re just culturally very different kinds of white males. Conservative white Americans eagerly move to majority-minority Texas. Those same people would be far more reluctant to live in majority-minority California, because of its profoundly different treatment of religious freedoms, gun rights, and of course tax rates.

I do not mean to imply that white progressives who cheer the rise of minority Americans and lament the prevalence of white supremacy are anything but sincere in their abhorrence of racism or their desire for black and brown Americans to achieve and succeed in the United States. I count too many progressives as close friends to think that they don’t truly wish for racial reconciliation and justice. Many, many conservatives share the same longing.

But at the same time, the liberal desire for racial justice is embedded within a larger world view that is antithetical on other grounds to white conservatives, and embedded within manners, mores, and habits of life that are substantially different from the manners, mores, and habits of life of more rural and exurban America. Urban America and heartland #Murica are two very, very different places.

Thus, conservative white Americans look at urban multicultural liberalism and notice an important fact: Its white elite remains, and continues to enjoy staggering amounts of power and privilege. So when that same white elite applauds the decline of “white America,” what conservatives often hear isn’t a cheer for racial justice but another salvo in our ongoing cultural grudge match, with the victors seeking to elevate black and brown voices while remaining on top themselves.

Even worse, each side of the white cultural divide all too often conditions its embrace of minorities on their embrace of (or at least acquiescence in) other key positions in the great white culture war. Are current battles over religious liberty central to racial justice? Are abortion rights pivotal to racial equality? Those questions are hard to answer, at best, but both are becoming litmus tests for Democrats and Republicans alike.

I’ll say it again: Discussion of American cultural conflicts has to take place alongside, not instead of, pivotal conversations and debates about race. Indeed, the legacy of American racism (including the sad prevalence of outright racists in the GOP) is one reason why white conservatives struggle to form alliances with black voters who are actually more culturally and religiously similar to their rural and exurban white neighbors than to their white progressive allies.

This is but one short piece. Other pieces can be written about the role race undeniably plays in our politics and culture. But it’s important to understand that when conservatives confront a political coalition that seems to be cheering the decline of “whiteness,” they often experience it as an attack on “white people the Left doesn’t like.”

As for the rest? They roll on, enjoying the same power and the same privilege. They’ve sacrificed little and stand to gain a lot: nothing short of victory in the great white culture war.


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